Episode 1: Gravity Wrinkles and the Arrow of Time

Sometimes in my line of work you need to be a fabric detective. That’s exactly what I was called upon to do when I received an email from Sue, a designer in the San Francisco Bay Area, who got my name from a friend in the industry. She informed me that she had just installed Taffeta draperies in her client’s Master Bedroom and that there was something terribly wrong with them. She insisted that I personally come and look at them at my earliest convenience. I checked my calendar and set up an appointment for the following week. In the meantime, I brushed up on my textile forensics.

Sue didn’t tell me what was wrong with her client’s draperies, however, when I arrived at the home the following week I had a sneaking suspicion what had happened.

“Thank you for coming,” Sue said to me with a good deal of gratitude in her voice.  At the moment our eyes met I could tell she was filled with self doubt regarding the profession she chose. I’ve seen that look on a designer’s face more than once; a look of disbelief and resignation. She must’ve been thinking to herself, “But I did everything right. How could this have happened? Why God? Why me?” No one told her about this – a scenario that was completely off anyone’s radar.

“This is Chris, the homeowner,” Sue said.

As we shook hands I noticed a look of horror on Chris’s face. It was a look that says, “I paid good money for these draperies. I’ll be damned if I have to live with them looking the way they do!”

“It’s in the Master Bedroom,” Chris informed me. She began walking. Sue followed closely behind. As we walked into the room Chris held out her hand, pointing to the draperies directly in front of us. “There they are,”  she sighed, as she exhaled in disbelief.

The draperies in question were a beautifully colored, patterned silk taffeta with French pleats that were tacked at the top, giving them a very European look. They were hanging on shinny brass rods with rings. The ends of the rods were decorated with over-sized Fleur-de-lis finials. The over-all look was stunning and drew the viewer’s attention upward, accentuating the ten-foot ceilings. “We just don’t understand why the fabric looks like…well, like it was put into a waffle iron,” Sue said while grimacing. “Can you tell us what happened?”

Glancing at the drapery in question my suspicions were confirmed.  I noticed that as the light hit the fabric a crisscross, lattice-like pattern reflected off its surface, running from the bottom hem all the way to the top header and across the entire drapery. I turned toward the designer Sue and her client Chris and began to explain what had happened. “This confusing phenomena that you are seeing is commonly known within the industry as Gravity Wrinkles. How they got there is one thing, how to get rid of them is an altogether different matter.”

“Well, what in the world are Gravity Wrinkles,” Chris asked, “and how the hell are we going to fix this?” I could sense her exasperation. I tried to calm her down by telling her that there was hope for her situation – all may not be lost.

I began my dissertation as follows: “To understand how to solve the problem it helps to know what caused it in the first place.” I turned to Sue and asked her if she had ever visited the drapery workroom that fabricated the draperies we were standing in front of. She told me that she had visited there several times but only briefly and then asked why that mattered.

“Well, you may have noticed that all fabric gets shipped to the workroom on a bolt that is wrapped in thick plastic,” I began. “On that plastic there is a warning label clearly printed on it. Do you know what it says?”

“I have no idea,” she replied.

“It says in bold letters: LAY FLAT. DO NOT STAND ON END. Now why do you think it says that?” I inquired further.

“We don’t know. So please, tell us, for Chrissakes,” Chris blurted out before Sue could respond.

“When you stand a bolt of fabric on its end,” I began with confidence, “the forces of nature spring into action. In this case, it is gravity that starts to show its evil hand.”

I walked over to the drapery and lifted up the leading edge and pointed to the waffle pattern of creases. “These creases were caused by someone standing the fabric on its end for too long: maybe a week, maybe a couple of days, maybe just over night,” I concluded.

“But how is that possible?” Sue asked in confusion. “I’ve been in this business a long time and have never seen anything like this.”

“Then you’re lucky,” I replied. “While it is rare, I see it quite often. This just happens to be an extreme case, on account of the type of fabric and the way the light hits it in this room. Let me explain.”

I began to calculate how many yards of fabric would be needed to make the two large pairs of draperies in the room. Since each pair was about twelve feet wide and ten feet tall I quickly did the math in my head as follows: 1 pair at 120″ tall, that’s about 4 yards. The width is 144″ which is about 8 widths of fabric per pair. So, 4 yards x 8 widths = 32 yards per pair. Multiply that by 2 and you get 64 yards.

“Judging from the size of these draperies,” I continued, “you would need about 64 yards of fabric. If you rolled that up on a bolt it would yield a diameter of about 4″-5″ and would be quite heavy, maybe 30 pounds or so. Now, if you stand that up on its end the weight of the fabric at the top of the bolt is going to force the fabric downward on the bolt. This will cause a spiraling of the fabric toward the bottom of the bolt and bulges will start to appear in both directions – a right-handed and a left-handed spiral. This is the crisscross pattern that you are noticing on the fabric. The longer the fabric is kept standing upright the more the creases get set in. To make things worse, if the bolt was left in a place where the sun was hitting it for any length of time that would have further complicated the problem. As the inside of the plastic bag got hotter, the moisture in the air inside the bag would start to condense and settle on the inside surface of the bag. Later, when the sun moved off the bolt of fabric it would start to cool and the moisture would be re-absorbed into the fabric, essentially steaming the wrinkles into place even more.” Before I could continue any further the client’s husband, who had just come home, entered the room. Evidently, he caught the last part of what I was just saying.

“Look,” he began, without introducing himself, “I’m an engineer in the Aerospace industry, I can assure you that this is not rocket science.”

“You’re right. Rocket science it is not. However, science it is. I can assure you of that!” I retorted snidely.

“I don’t give a rats ass what you call it. Let’s just iron the damn things and be done with it,” he demanded condescendingly.

“I wish it were that easy, my friend,” I answered with a smile.

“You have to forgive my husband,” Chris insisted. “He gets impatient when it comes to things like this.”

“Oh, I understand,” I said, “I know these draperies were not cheap and you want them to be right.” I tried to convey to the couple that I was on their side, that I was there to help. “No, I get it. Believe me,” I insisted. “See, here’s the thing. As you probably know,” I continued, searching for Chris’s husband’s name.

“I’m sorry, Santosh,” he added, realizing that he hadn’t introduced himself.

We shook hands. There’s nothing that irks me more than an engineer thinking that what I do is easy and that there is always a simple solution to every problem. I decided to pour on even more of the geeky-science-stuff just to piss him off.

“As you probably know, Santosh, the reason why heat and water causes wrinkles to fall out when ironing is that the heat from an iron breaks the bonds that are holding polymers in place within the fibers of a fabric. When the bonds are broken, the fibers are less rigid with respect to each other, so they can shift into new positions. As the fabric cools, new bonds form, locking the fibers into a new shape,” I placed one hand on top of the other and slid them across one another to demonstrate my point.” Now, as I was explaining to the ladies before you came, this fabric may have been left in the sun, causing it to get damp as the condensed water vapor inside the plastic bag began to cool.  If you remember your chemistry you will know that the polymers in the fabric are linked by hydrogen bonds, which are the same bonds that hold together molecules of water. When an absorbent fabric gets wet it allows water molecules to penetrate the areas between the polymer chains in the fibers, permitting the formation of new hydrogen bonds. The new shape becomes locked in as the water evaporates.” I held my hands up and locked my fingers together for emphasis.  “In this case, since this fabric was left standing on end you now have strong, unsightly wrinkles.”

“I understand all that,” replied Santosh. “So, why can’t we just iron the wrinkles out?”

“Good question,” I replied. “You see, depending on the type of fabric and how it was woven it will have a unique and individual wrinkle recovery factor. That’s a fancy industry term that rates how quickly and easily wrinkled fabric will resort back to its original state. According to the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists, commonly known as the AATCC, I’m afraid to tell you that Silk has a poor recovery rating. It’s around 20%, which is low on the scale. Now, since pressure and heat caused the wrinkles in the first place, you are right to assume that the same would take the wrinkles out. Well, while that is true for some fabrics, with silk it’s a different story. The amount of heat needed to get those wrinkles to fall out would most likely cause more harm than good. If you apply too much heat it will damage the fabric by causing it to pucker and bubble. Once wrinkled, silk wants to stay that way. You see, some fabrics are temperamental.” I chuckled as I concluded my lecture. Santosh was not amused.

“I am perfectly aware of that,” replied Santosh.

“Let me ask you something, Santosh,” I interjected before he could continue. “Being an engineer you’ve probably heard of the concept in physics called the ‘Arrow of Time’?”

“Sure. It’s a principle of Thermodynamics,” he answered reluctantly, wondering what in the world it had to do with our conversation.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed, and began to elaborate. “The ‘Arrow of Time’ is the one-way direction or ‘asymmetry’ of time. It’s based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in an isolated system, entropy tends to increase with time. The implication being obvious.”

“And what might that be, Einstein?” Santosh asked, clearly annoyed by my exegesis.

“Simply put,” I continued, “there are some physical processes that are essentially irreversible. I call it ‘The Humpty Dumpty Principle.’ In most cases when gravity wrinkles appear in fabric, well… I’m sorry to say, they just ain’t goin’ away. It’s like tryin’ to put Humpty back together again. You know what I mean?” I  concluded with a chortle.

“Well, listen,” Chris interjected. “I have a silk blouse and I iron it all the time. It gets the wrinkles out. Why can’t we just do that with the curtains?”

“Good point,” I replied. “The answer is that there are many different types of silk. To assess how a particular silk will perform you need to consider three factors: Silk Type, Weight, and Weave. Silks of the same type might have different characteristics because of different weights or weaves. Now, your blouse is probably made from Crepe de Chine which is one of the most popular fabrics for women’s blouses. Depending on the weight it will have different characteristics. If your blouse irons out easy it’s probably around 16 momme, which is a unit of textile measurement equaling approximately 2 ounces per square yard. Furthermore,  it’s most likely a Satin weave which would give it a nice shine and luster.”

“Yes, I believe it is,” she replied, with an air of disbelief and awe.

“Your draperies, on the other hand,” I continued, “are made from Taffeta silk, which by nature is stiff and rustled. Even when it isn’t wrinkled, it looks wrinkled. That’s because the light reflects off the uneven surface caused by the fabric’s stiffness. It’s also a light weave of Taffeta which makes it more susceptible to wrinkling.”

“Let’s be scientific about this, shall we?” Santosh demanded.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Honey,” he directed his attention toward his wife Chris, “why don’t you bring the iron in here along with the ironing board and let’s see what some good old-fashioned heat and water can do?”

Chris left the room and quickly returned with an iron and ironing board. As I started taking down one of the drapery panels and setting up the ironing board Santosh began speaking to his wife in his native tongue. “Ye sale gora!  Sochta hai ki, vo sab kuch janta hai. Mei usko dikhaaunga kaun bewakoof hai.” he said angrily.

Now, there was no way he could have ever imagined that I could possibly understand his language, Hindi. How could he have known that for the last twenty years I’ve been studying his language while driving from one job to the next all the while listening to language CD’s? I knew what he just said was: “This bastard white guy thinks he knows everything. I’ll show him who the fool is!” I contemplated whether or not I should let him in on it. I decided that I needed to “blown his mind up,” to use an Indian expression.

Suniye, Santosh,” I began, as his eyes lit up. “Mei shayad sab kuch nahi janta, lekin, kapre ke bare me todasa janta.” I told him that I may not know everything, but I knew a little bit about fabrics. The look of embarrassment on his face was priceless. Chris’s face lit up with joy and surprise.

“Oh my god, how do you know our language?” she asked in astonishment.

It all made sense to me now. Although Chris was dark-skinned by European standards, she was on the lighter side of the spectrum as far as complexions go in India. It was her name that through me off at first.  However, I did pick up a slight Indian accent in her voice that became quite apparent in her question to me.

“It’s just a hobby of mine,” I replied,  pretending that it was nothing. I then asked her in Hindi what her real name was, assuming that Chris was her nickname. She told me her Indian name was Krishna.

“I see,” I responded. “That makes sense. So you shortened it to Chris to give it an Anglicized sound?

“Yes, that’s right,” she replied. “Do you know what it means?”

“Well at first, one might assume it is the name of the Hindu god, Krishna, who appears as a blue cowherd boy, holding a flute, wearing a peacock feather in his head dress, and who is also known as Govinda, the Lord of Cows,” I explained nonchalantly. “But, since that name would be more appropriate for a man, I’m guessing that your name is actually pronounced Krishnaa, with the emphasis on the long A at the end.” I made the sound similar to the one people make when their doctor asks them to open up wide, and say “Ah” when getting a throat examination. “The difference being that ‘Krishnaa’ with the long A, indicates the goddess Radharani, who is Krishna’s eternal consort. My guess would be that you are named after her. Am I right?” I inquired with a grin.

“Wow! That’s amazing,” she exclaimed, her Indian accent being conspicuously pronounced.

“Can we get back to the task at hand here, please?” exclaimed Santosh.

“Sure. Sure,” I quickly replied as I directed everyone’s attention back to the ill-fated drapery panels. “Let’s give this a try and see what happens, shall we?” I suggested, while laying the drapery over the ironing board.

I turned the setting to ‘Silk’ and adjusted the iron for low steam. I began carefully sliding the iron over the wrinkled area being particularly careful not to keep it in one place for too long. As the steam began to slowly rise off the fabric the familiar smell of natural silk filled my nostrils with a soothing aroma. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something primordial about the smell of silk being ironed. I was careful not to over do it. I didn’t want the fabric to pucker from too much heat. While I was ironing everyone was silent and just watched. Santosh remarked that the wrinkles were indeed coming out. It did look as though that was the case, at least while viewing the fabric laying flat on the ironing board. After ironing a sizable section of the drapery I held it up for everyone to inspect. The results were as I expected. While there was some minor improvement everyone could still notice the waffle-like pattern throughout the panel.

“Sometimes when draperies are too short they are taken back to the workroom to have the hem let out,” I started. “In most cases, even after heavy ironing, the old hem line still shows. This is a similar problem.”

“I just can’t believe it,” Santosh replied, visibly disappointed. I felt vindicated and knew that I had earned his respect.

“What do you suggest we do now, Mark?” Sue asked, in a tone of resignation and disappointment.

“Your best course of action would be to contact your fabric sales rep,” I began. “Since it is unknown where the damage actually happened – at the workroom, in the UPS truck or facility, or at the warehouse of the fabric supplier – I would tell your rep that the fabric is damaged and you want it replaced. Since this kind of thing doesn’t happen that often, you might be pleasantly surprised by her response.”

“I guess we have no choice,” Sue remarked.

“I wish the outcome would have been different. I’m sorry I all I could do was explain the problem and not fix it,” I replied sincerely.

“You did what you could. Thank you for coming out, Mark, and helping us sort this out,” said Chris. “We really appreciate it. Please let me know how much I owe you and I’ll write you a check.” She left the room to get her checkbook.

While I was hanging the drapery back on the rod I noticed that the right side bracket seemed lower than the rest and that it was leaning forward a little bit. I wanted to be sure that it was not pulling out of the wall. After-all, if the draperies fell out of the wall after I left I would most certainly get blamed for it. I set the panel down and picked up my drill. My plan was to give the screw a turn to see if it would spin out, which would indicate that it was not secure. As I tried to tighten the screw it did start to spin out in the hole. I figured I would add a toggle bolt to properly secure the bracket. As I backed the screw out a little  I heard a slight hissing sound that was disconcerting. I continued backing out the screw when, without warning and quite suddenly, I was slammed in the face with a strong geyser of water that shot out from the hole in the wall and forced me to jump off my ladder.

“Oh my god,” Sue screamed.

Water was spraying across the room soaking the draperies on the opposite wall. Artwork, furniture, electronic devises, the flat screen TV, and the carpet were all getting drenched. Chris ran back in the room with a look of terror on her face. “What happened?” she screamed.

“Quick, I need to find your water cut-off switch. Do you know where it is,” I asked Santosh.

“I think it’s out front,” he replied in a panic.

I ran out of the room while wiping water off my face. In a frenzied attempt to find the main water valve I looked to either side of their driveway and saw the rectangular cement cover that said EBMUD on it. I ran to my car with a sense of urgency while thinking about all the damage that was taking place inside the house. I grabbed a flat-head screw driver and a pair of pliers from my tool bag and quickly ran back to the cover. I pried the screw driver into one of the edges of the cover and lifted it off. About a foot down into the ground was the water meter that connected the water line from the street to the main water line of the house. Just next to the meter was the cut-off valve. I tried turning it with my hand but it would not budge. I gripped it with my pliers and began moving it. It took all my strength to close the damned thing. I paused for a second and exhaled a sigh of relief while on all fours and hunched over the water meter in the ground. “It’s never fuckin’ easy!” I thought to myself. “Murphy’s law, man. If it can happen, it will happen. Never fails.”

When I got back inside the house the scene was not pretty. The carpet in the bedroom was thoroughly soaked. The draperies were literally dripping wet. Santosh was picking up wet papers and documents and attempting to lay them out to dry so they wouldn’t be ruined. He turned to me when I entered the room. “What the hell just happened?” he cried out. “Why, in god’s name, was there water shooting out of the fucking wall?”

I turned to the wall in question. It was made of drywall and was anything but dry at the moment. A large area of the wall was darkened by the water. At the bottom of the wall, water was still seeping out from under the baseboard  and from the power outlet, which was a terrifying sight. After examining the hole behind the bracket I noticed a white PVC pipe. Apparently the person who installed the draperies had no idea that the homeowner’s contractor ran a water line up the side of the wall, right next to the window, and up to the overhead sprinklers in the room. The installer must have screwed directly into the water line of the sprinkler system without being aware of it. In my attempt to fix the bracket I loosened the screw and out flowed the water!

After helping remove several soaked items from the room I explained to Santosh and the others what had happened. They realized it wasn’t my fault. I tried to encourage them to look at the bright side. “You know, there’s  a silver lining to this catastrophe. No pun intended,” I began to explain. “First, it’s a good thing this happened now. Had the water sprung when you were not home the damage would’ve been far worse. Second, you can make a claim through your Homeowner’s Insurance and have your draperies completely redone, solving the Gravity Wrinkle problem. Hopefully, nothing irreplaceable was lost.”

“Thank god. There wasn’t,” Chris replied. After a slight pause she started to chuckle. “You should’ve seen the look on your face when that water starting coming out. Oh my god.” Everyone laughed.

I was relived that they were lighthearted about what had just happened. Santosh excused himself and left the room to call his insurance agent and a plumber. Chris wrote me a check and I said good bye to her and Sue. They both thanked me again for taking the time and apologized for all the trouble.  As I got into my car I shook my head and laughed. I blurted out loud to myself the words Sue wrote to me last week in her email: “I’m sure you’ll be in and out of there in fifteen minutes.”  I looked at the clock in my car. Two hours had past since I had arrived. Now I was going to arrive late…and wet, for my next appointment. I looked into the mirror. My hair was drenched and terribly out of place. “Looks like that fucking ‘Arrow of Time’ just shot me in the face ,” I remarked, chuckling to myself as I drove off.